Berat, Albania (CREDIT: ISTOCK)

Berat, Albania (CREDIT: ISTOCK)

We walk up the slope, away from the water, past the coffee-shop tables on the pavements of Epidamn Boulevard. Then we turn left onto Rruga Kalase, and a hot day in 21st-century Albania melts, to be replaced by the second century and the Roman Empire in its pomp.

Hemmed in by a scattershot of modern homes, but unmistakable in its majesty, Durres Amphitheatre could, without a huge leap in imagination, still ring with the sword-clash of gladiatorial combat, seats rearing tall above the arena floor. Carolyn Perry grins like the mother of a school sports day winner. “You weren’t expecting that, were you?” she beams.

I wasn’t. None of us were. On first inspection, Durres is precisely what you would expect of Albania’s second largest city. Freight containers crowd the port – which still clangs and clanks in front of the core of the town, ferries waiting to cross the Adriatic to Bari and Ancona.

So is the significance that the city held under Rome, when, known as Dyrrachium, it was the start of the Via Egnatia, the highway that forged 700 miles (161km) east to what is now Istanbul. Remarkably, one of the ancient gates to this crucial route across the Balkans still stands, as part of the door to the Portiku Wine Bar, in Rruga Skenderbej.

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